July 10, 2012

Behold Leviathan

by Allen Irwin

A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Leviathan, the upcoming film from Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) and Véréna Paravel, explores modern-day commercial fishing through a cosmic, yet intimate and immersive (not to mention submersive) lens. After viewing the trailer (above), I appropriately felt like a sailor perched high atop the mast-head of a ship, glimpsing the spout of a great whale on the horizon. Operating like a short film or a proof of concept piece, the trailer takes us on a short four minute journey through the eyes of the fishing bait to a final reveal of the ship itself, relentlessly pounding its way through the ocean.

The trailer is awash with the elements of the fishing boat: blood, water and entrails spill out into the sea and onto the camera until a wave sweeps it away from the ship into the chum line. A drop of water on the camera lens distorts our perspective – making the waves appear to be the hump of some aquatic behemoth. Innumerable gulls swoop down on us for a meal as the surf threatens to pull us under. A surreptitious edit pulls us out of the water and into a locked position face to face with the bow, following its ceaseless bobbing upon the deep.

More than anything else, the trailer feels like an experience  instead of a documentary. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel used 11 cameras operated by themselves and the ship’s crew in a “form of collective experimentation that gives free reign to the perspectives of both fishermen and their catch…” In the same vein of such recent fiction films like Enter the Void (2009), Leviathan takes an experiential approach to its storytelling, opting for direct, almost physical, sensation over verbose narration or talking-head interviews. The filmmakers are operating through the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, whose stated goal is to:

“…support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography, with original nonfiction media practices that explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human existence. As such, it encourages attention to the many dimensions of social experience and subjectivity that may only with difficulty be rendered with words alone.”

By doing away with direct dialogue between filmmaker and audience, they achieve an immediacy and aesthetic effect that preserves some of the essence of the ship and the enterprise of fishing itself. Even the editing of the trailer attempts to be invisible, creating a direct line from ethnographic subject to audience, resulting in an impressive stream of striking images that speak to the gut instead of the brain. It seems that with Leviathan, like Sweetgrass before it, the goal is not to show by serving up deliberately rationed segments but to envelop and overwhelm in order to create a shared ethnographic experience.

Highly anticipating Leviathan’s release.

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